Chutney soca is the Hindi-nuanced modern calypso dance music of Trinidad, a unique blend of the Indian and Afro-Caribbean cultures of the island. Popular Bollywood film songs are souped up with reggae beats and sung by local artists. It's both strange and refreshing to hear chutney soca for the first time. I was in a taxi, coming from the airport to Port of Spain with an Indian driver and the radio blaring. I recognized some of the Bollywood songs, but the Hindi sounded different, not as clipped or clear as you hear it on the subcontinent. The heavy downbeat announced that we were in the Caribbean, despite the dhols and the droning strings. The language was Indian, but the accent was Trini.
In photographing among the Indian diaspora, I have been more interested in things that seem local than in replications of Indian culture in a new country. Indians have been in Trinidad since 1845, tracing their roots to the men who were brought by the British as indentured laborers to work on sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery in the colonies. In their isolation and struggle to survive, Indians forged a unique culture in the Caribbean soil.
Classically trained sitarist Mungal Patasar fronts a jazz-fusion band called Pantar, which combines traditional Indian and Trini instruments -- the sitar and the steel pan.
Trinidad's central plains are its agricultural heartland.
The Waterloo Temple, the Caribbean's most famous Hindu structure. The jhandi prayer flags on the right are unique to the Hinduism of the Caribbean.
Sugar cane cutters sip white rum in Felicity, one of Trinidad's oldest Indian settlements.
Jhandi prayer flags, each containing the image of a deity, are dedicated in a puja ceremony and then planted in the yard of the house. After a year, when they are weathered and worn, they are planted in the ocean, which connects them to the Ganges and India.
I took these pictures of Reena at a club in Brooklyn, whose name escapes me at the moment. The cool lighting effects are a happy accident. The light was strange in the viewfinder and on the camera's LCD, but I had no idea what was causing it to splinter since it didn't look this way to my eyes. I didn't figure it out until I got home and saw that the filter on the camera lens had cracked in a perfect starburst pattern on one side. Apparently, since it was dark inside the club, I had set the camera bag down too hard on the concrete floor at just the right angle to shatter the filter.
Meet Nina Paley, America's Best-loved Unknown Cartoonist and creator of "Sita Sings the Blues," an animated feature film that weaves the Ramayana, a personal story about the end of a marriage, and the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. The film has been racking up awards. It was an official selection at ten film festivals, including Tribeca and Berlin, and has just won Best Feature at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in Avignon, France.
This image is of Nina taking her star turn for the cameras at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, when "Sita" made its American debut.
I traveled to Guyana in April of 2004, arriving on Easter weekend, which meant most of the shops were closed in Georgetown and people were spending time with family at home. There was constant rain, which confined me to my room in the Hotel Tower, where I drank Carib beer and watched Brian Lara smack his 400 not out against England in Antigua on TV.
But the rain stopped on Easter Monday and all of Georgetown gathered at the seawall -- the northern coastline of the city where the muddy Demerara River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Easter tradition is to fly kites and enjoy a street fair with rides, games, and cotton candy.
At the end of May, Ashok celebrated his 60th birthday, which is a milestone in Hinduism, with a traditional ceremony, followed by the renewal of wedding vows with his wife, Gomathi. The ceremonies were large celebrations with lots of family and all the traditional elements -- chanting in Sanskrit, pujas, fire, honoring ancestors, blessings family members and guests. There was plenty of food, too. The event was large and complicated, like most Indian family events, but I was struck by the simplicity of this scene -- Ashok and one of his friends in their veshtis, eating lunch on the deck at the back of the house, with the wilds of New Jersey in the background.
I traveled to Malaysia in January 2008 with the writer Sugi Ganeshananthan to explore the large Tamil community there. Since Malaysia features some of the most remarkable Hindu structures outside the subcontinent, we were eager to see the famous Batu Caves, site of the Thaipusam festival, which draws people from all over the world. Sugi and I explored the caves in the afternoon, but I wanted to wait around until dark so that the spotlights would illuminate the new enormous statue of Lord Murugan and I could photograph.
So we waited and waited. Sugi bought Ganesha statues in the gift shop. We had snacks and cool drinks in the canteen. Then the skies opened up -- monsoon season. An enormous volume of water fell hard from the sky for hours while we stayed in the canteen, which was just a covered pavilion. After a while, the place closed and we had to leave, which meant a mad dash from structure to structure and through the shin-deep water that had collected in the plaza to get to the temple on the left, which was open for prayers.
One of the guys at the canteen gave me a piece of cardboard covered in plastic, the kind of thing that will hold four six-packs. So I held it over my head and we dashed across.
Finally the spotlights came on, so I took that cardboard and the camera, rolled up my pants, and waded barefoot (shoes off in the temple) into the plaza. Initially I had been upset about the rain, but when I got to the middle, I saw that the water had created a reflecting pool -- the scene was really beautiful. I shot dozens of frames as the sky darkened. I rarely take photographs without people in them, so my favorite (the one at the top) shows a woman with an umbrella walking across the plaza on the left side of the frame. The tiny figure shows the human scale of the scene, the enormous statue of Murugan (140 feet) and the 272 steps leading up to the caves.
Umbrellas and reflecting pools in Malaysia's winter monsoon -- the gods' gifts to a photographer.
One of first stories I worked on for IndiaWorld was the Miss India and Miss Teen India Georgia pageants held in Atlanta in 2003. The event took place at Georgia Tech university and fed into the greater Miss India USA pageant. The girls here in the photo are part of the teen pageant. I enjoyed shooting backstage far more than shooting the event itself, which was more of a cultural exhibition than a display of the female form (no swimsuits). I was the only male backstage among the mothers, sisters, and friends who were helping the girls primp and prepare.
The eventual winner of the 2003 Miss India Georgia pageant, Meghna Nagarajan, went on to win the Miss India USA title (that's my photo in the link).